The central metaphor is the physical house or mansion that not only stands for the Usher family but exhales the destiny of the Ushers as its very breath. In the first two paragraphs, Poe establishes the identity of the physical house with the Usher family, and this is developed throughout the story. As the narrator rides up to the house he notices “the vacant eye-like windows” (p. 38) that will parallel Roderick’s own vacant and mad eyes. The gloomy house makes even the rational narrator depressed and gloomy, and its effect upon Roderick and Madeleine is to make them paralyzed and sick with fear. The narrator explains that since there are no Ushers who live outside the house, the “House of Usher” means “both the family and the family mansion” (p. 39).
The gothic room of the house in which the narrator first sees Roderick breathes “an atmosphere of sorrow” (p. 40) like its master who is “so terribly altered” that the narrator pities him. Roderick looks like a “cadaver” with “a want of moral energy” (p. 40). He explains to the narrator that it is the fault of the structure of the house: “the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about [this influence] upon the morale of his existence” (p. 41).
The metaphor is most fully developed in the ballad that Roderick sings called “The Haunted Palace” in which he makes explicit the correlation between the body and the dwelling place. This palace once “reared its head” with celestial thoughts (p. 43). The large windows are like eyes through which one sees the ruler of the house in his “wit and wisdom” surrounded by divine spirits (p. 44). Roderick sings symbolically of himself in a sane and happy state of mind. Eventually, though, “evil things in robes of sorrow” (p. 44) assail the palace and possess the owner within until now travelers only see in the red-lit windows a “ghastly” and “hideous” throng of demonic forms (p. 44). The red-lit windows echo the red light the narrator sees in Roderick’s room and symbolizes a sort of frenzy and madness that can be seen in his eyes.
After he sings this song Roderick tells his theory of “the sentience of all vegetable things” (p. 44) that explains his fear of the House of Usher. The very “gray stones of the home of his forefathers” and their fungi “in the order of their arrangement” had given birth to a “certain condensation of an atmosphere,” giving off a “terrible influence” on the inhabitants of the house (p. 45). This living and evil breath of the house brings all the Ushers to a tragic end. In other words, as in the ballad, the house itself is mad. The House is the Usher family. It falls as the inhabitants fall.
Since horror is the effect Poe wishes to convey in his Gothic tales, he focuses on images of decay and dissolution. Life is slipping away to be replaced by disease and despair. The narrator arrives in autumn when the sky and vegetation are bleak. Though young, the brother and sister are in a state of illness, apathy, and inaction, their bodies and minds decaying like the house with its discolored fungus and stagnant pool. The building, which is like the body, is “of an excessive antiquity” with “The discoloration of ages” (p. 39). The tarn is “pestilent” (p. 39). The “crumbling condition of the individual stones” (39-40) indicates “extensive decay” evidenced by the fissure or crack that will break the house in pieces (40). There is a “ghastly pallor” to Roderick’s skin (p. 41), and Madeleine is wasting away. She has to go to bed, due to “the prostrating power of the destroyer” (p. 42). Roderick suffers from hypochondria, such as “the morbid condition of the auditory nerve” (p. 43) that makes sound unbearable to him. The decaying trees and stagnant tarn influence Roderick’s mind, which both he and the narrator witness becoming more and more incoherent: “I fancied that I perceived . . . a full consciousness on the part of Usher of the tottering of his lofty reason” (p. 43). Roderick eventually becomes hysterical with “mad hilarity in his eyes” (p. 47).
Roderick seems to assist the decay going on around him by focusing on negative images of demons and sorrow in art and music that unhinge his mind even more. He buries his sister too soon which accelerates her death and his own. Somehow the weakened Madeleine manages enough strength to break out of her tomb and exhibit her “emaciated” (p. 49) and bloody form to her terrified brother. They and the house immediately collapse and disappear into the tarn together.
Darkness and Death
There is a want of light in Poe’s landscapes, except to reveal what is frightening. There is an “insufferable gloom” around the mansion that infects the narrator with the idea of “the desolate and terrible” (p. 38). The tarn is “black and lurid” except at the end during the storm when it glows with a supernatural light. The storm is so dark that no moon or stars can be seen, but there is a horrid glow underneath the vapor rising from the tarn. The narrator assures Roderick the glow is some electrical phenomenon, but it is closer to a ghostly light of doom.
The gothic mansion is full of “dark and intricate passages” (p. 40). “Feeble gleams of encrimsoned light” in Roderick’s room of “dark draperies” (p. 40) show distinctly the nearby objects but the far corners of the chamber cannot be seen. Madeleine is barely visible as she walks through the room like a ghost. Roderick plays “long improvised dirges” (p. 42) on guitar and lute. He paints a picture of a grave, “an immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel” with “No outlet” and a ghostly light illuminating it. His ballad is likewise a dirge that “mourns” for the loss of the “old time entombed” in the Haunted Palace (p. 44). Roderick reads a manual in Latin for the death rites called, Vigiliae Morturorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae. He then practices this ritual on Madeleine, burying her in the basement when she is in a cataleptic trance.
The scene of the burial includes a vault “small, damp, and entirely without means of admission for light” (p. 45). The vault is described in detail as lined with copper and having an iron door. The narrator calls it a “region of horror” (p. 46). They “screwed down the lid” of the coffin (p. 46). These details make it clear that if Madeleine was not already dead, she will soon be so from being buried alive.
When the narrator tries to comfort Roderick by reading the fantastic tale, “The Mad Trist” by Sir Launcelot Canning, there are images of violence and death as the hero kills the dragon that echo the “rending of [Madeleine’s] coffin” (p. 49). Finally, “the enshrouded figure” of Lady Madeleine dripping with blood in her “final death-agonies,” is enough to kill Roderick with fear, “a victim to the terrors he had anticipated” (p. 50).